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Wyoming Jades Revisited

Wyoming Jades Revisited

By Roger Merk, FGA


Pala International is pleased to publish the following article on Wyoming jades by the late Roger Merk. We're grateful to his family for granting us permission to share it with our readers. Roger prepared the article in the summer of 2015, not long before he died. It is a fitting testament to his enthusiasm for a subject that he held dear.


The history of Wyoming jade (nephrite) is very short. There are many urban legends that describe how Chinese railroad laborers discovered Wyoming jade in the late 1800s and sent this fine-grained nephrite back to China. Bob Frey conveyed to me that while he lived in Hong Kong he saw many Chinese jades, carved during the Victorian era, in shops that appeared to be carved from Wyoming jade.

Jade, the Wyoming State gemstone, was first described in the Granite Mountains area of central Wyoming in 1936. Much exploration followed right after the publication in February 1945 of Popular Science containing a short article titled "'Green Gold': How prospectors are finding a fortune in boulders of high-grade American green jade." The most intense jade exploration and mining activity occurred there between about 1940 and 1960.

By the mid-1960s, beautiful green, inexpensive British Columbian nephrite came on the North American market and destroyed the more expensive Wyoming jades. From the mid-1960s to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was very little interest in Wyoming jade. Following the 2008 Olympics, a large BC jade Buddha was carved for a small monastery in Australia and the demand for nephrite increased significantly. Concurrently, nephrite carving from Santa Barbara, California to British Columbia increased significantly and was showcased at the annual Big Sur Jade Festival. All these events resulted in a shortage of top quality nephrite being offered for sale. A few jade dealers began bringing more varieties of the best Wyoming jades to the Big Sur Jade Festival, so in the last ten years there has been a revival of interest in these jades.

My interest began in the early 1980s and continues to fascinate me. I make several buying trips to Wyoming annually. One side note: for the past 40-plus years I have looked for a Wyoming jade carved Indian artifact. I have purchased dozens of pieces promised to me as Wyoming jade arrows, for example, but was disappointed with all. The majority of these "Wyoming jade arrowheads" were formed from a greenish chert common in the area. I am almost certain that there are no Wyoming jade artifacts due to difficulty in forming this material with primitive tools.

This article is meant to show the many color varieties of beautiful green to olive green, to some that are almost black as well as the many pattern jades. In addition, a few of the carvings being produced by Western carvers will be shown.

The most important color varieties of Wyoming jade are "Apple green," black, olive, and sage followed by the numerous patterned jades.

Much has been written on these jade exploits such as Marcia K. Branham's Wyoming Jade: A Pioneer Hunter's Story (Russell P. MacFall ed., San Diego: Lapidary Journal, 1980) and numerous articles in Lapidary Journal, Gems and Gemology, and Rock & Gem over the years. These articles are spellbinding in detail, however no one has really taken the time to display these beauties in full color. The past articles either contained dreadful color photos that did not match the magic of the jade specimens or the photos were in smudged black and white. Over the past year, Robert Weldon has taken some great true-color pictures of my best Wyoming jade specimens to show the jade enthusiast what the fuss was all about. This short article will attempt to retrace and bring the Wyoming jade story up to date in full color.

Definitions: Jade wind slicks or slicks are naturally occurring cobbles of jade that have been partially or fully polished by the wind and sand. Some folks use the term ventifacts, which are rocks that have been abraded, pitted, etched, grooved, or polished by wind-driven sand or ice crystals. Jade enthusiasts have often used slicks to apply to particularly attractive jade wind slicks.

This twelve pound slick boulder of "apple green" jade was found by a sheep herder in 1948. This boulder is precisely what caused the jade hunters to flock to Wyoming after World War II and search for "Green Gold." Unfortunately very few jades found were of this caliber. Ben Nott of San Francisco owned this beauty for about 50 years, but sold it at the 2013 Big Sur Jade Festival. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This twelve pound slick boulder of "apple green" jade was found by a sheep herder in 1948. This boulder is precisely what caused the jade hunters to flock to Wyoming after World War II and search for "Green Gold." Unfortunately very few jades found were of this caliber. Ben Nott of San Francisco owned this beauty for about 50 years, but sold it at the 2013 Big Sur Jade Festival. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

A typical three-pound apple-green slick found outside of Lander in the early 1950s. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

A typical three-pound apple-green slick found outside of Lander in the early 1950s. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This center-cut 20-lb "apple green" jade was found and cut by Bergstrom in 1951 from an 80-lb boulder. (Photo: Robert Weldon) 

This center-cut 20-lb "apple green" jade was found and cut by Bergstrom in 1951 from an 80-lb boulder. (Photo: Robert Weldon) 

Another naturally polished "apple green" slick found by a sheep herder outside of Lander, Wyoming. This piece weighed about eight pounds.

Another naturally polished "apple green" slick found by a sheep herder outside of Lander, Wyoming. This piece weighed about eight pounds.

Much of the best semi-translucent "apple green" slicks were immediately cut into slabs for use in jewelry making, hence very few of these top grade slicks are still around.  

This is a fine example of the pure "apple green" color found in some serious Wyoming jade collections. This example is in the author's collection and is about 4" x 2½" and ¼" thick. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This is a fine example of the pure "apple green" color found in some serious Wyoming jade collections. This example is in the author's collection and is about 4" x 2½" and ¼" thick. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

The light tan rind often hides the beautiful green jade in this 7" x 3½" x ¼" slice. Most buyers prefer the non-included, pure translucent green rather than this attractive slice and will pay dearly for such jade. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

The light tan rind often hides the beautiful green jade in this 7" x 3½" x ¼" slice. Most buyers prefer the non-included, pure translucent green rather than this attractive slice and will pay dearly for such jade. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This is one of the first pieces of good green that I purchased in 1980. I bought this piece from John Sinkankas, who had bought it in 1948 at a show. It is about 2" x 5" x ¼". (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This is one of the first pieces of good green that I purchased in 1980. I bought this piece from John Sinkankas, who had bought it in 1948 at a show. It is about 2" x 5" x ¼". (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Here is an 8-lb piece of partially slicked and hand-polished, very good black jade found by Elvie Parker from Casper, Wyoming. Most folks believe this is from the famous Edward's black claim found in the early 1960s.

Here is an 8-lb piece of partially slicked and hand-polished, very good black jade found by Elvie Parker from Casper, Wyoming. Most folks believe this is from the famous Edward's black claim found in the early 1960s.

This is a 6½-lb reddish, naturally polished piece of black nephrite. I consider this a natural sculpture and do not wish to cut it.

This is a 6½-lb reddish, naturally polished piece of black nephrite. I consider this a natural sculpture and do not wish to cut it.

This 3-lb cut piece of black jade shows the 1/3" of soft white rind that is often found in mined black jade. The quality of red-rind black jade and white-rind black jade is the same in most cases. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This 3-lb cut piece of black jade shows the 1/3" of soft white rind that is often found in mined black jade. The quality of red-rind black jade and white-rind black jade is the same in most cases. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This top-quality 6-lb end cut was recently found on the Edward's claim and sold immediately to several buyers. The rind is very tough in this piece.

This top-quality 6-lb end cut was recently found on the Edward's claim and sold immediately to several buyers. The rind is very tough in this piece.

A handsome 5-lb multi-colored jade slick with an iron dark-reddish skin on the exterior of rough masses. Alteration in these boulders often proceed to about ¼ inch below the surface and shows beneath the red skin, a brownish zone of altered nephrite followed by a green opaque zone next to the nice handsome green material within the core. The piece is not "apple" or "olive" green, but rather a transition. Below are examples of "olive" green jade slicks. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

A handsome 5-lb multi-colored jade slick with an iron dark-reddish skin on the exterior of rough masses. Alteration in these boulders often proceed to about ¼ inch below the surface and shows beneath the red skin, a brownish zone of altered nephrite followed by a green opaque zone next to the nice handsome green material within the core. The piece is not "apple" or "olive" green, but rather a transition. Below are examples of "olive" green jade slicks. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above is shown a very nice 3-lb naturally wind-polished cinder slick olive jade. The natural polish on this specimen shows the work of the intensive high sand winds of the Wyoming plains. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above is shown a very nice 3-lb naturally wind-polished cinder slick olive jade. The natural polish on this specimen shows the work of the intensive high sand winds of the Wyoming plains. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

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Two different cinder jade pieces are shown above. The one on the left is 6 ounces and the one on the right is 2½ lbs. (Photos: Robert Weldon)

This 5-ounce Wyoming olive jade slick shows the more common darker olives. Typically, jade carvers appreciate the lighter olives and really desire honey olive translucent jades for carving. The number of different shades of Wyoming olive nephrite is too large to list or show. The main importance of this variety of Wyoming jade is the fine-grained structure that is so easy to carve into intricate carvings; the polishing is similar to polishing a good chalcedony. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This 5-ounce Wyoming olive jade slick shows the more common darker olives. Typically, jade carvers appreciate the lighter olives and really desire honey olive translucent jades for carving. The number of different shades of Wyoming olive nephrite is too large to list or show. The main importance of this variety of Wyoming jade is the fine-grained structure that is so easy to carve into intricate carvings; the polishing is similar to polishing a good chalcedony. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This delicate light olive nephrite slick is one that is desired by both collectors and carvers. The translucency is easy to see in this photo.

This delicate light olive nephrite slick is one that is desired by both collectors and carvers. The translucency is easy to see in this photo.

The majority of jade carvers that I sell to are more interested in the best of the fined-grained jades and not so much in the color, but translucency is also very important.

The next color illustrated here is the opaque sage green Wyoming nephrite that ranges from a light sage to a dark, more greenish-blue sage. Below is shown an example of sage green nephrite.

Above is a small slice typical of Wyoming sage green jade that is easily polished. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above is a small slice typical of Wyoming sage green jade that is easily polished. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Next are illustrations of several patterned jades, often termed "Bull Canyon" jades from the locality where many of the best patterned jades were found, and also several of the unusual jade colors and patterns rarely seen but much desired by collectors.

Bull Canyon sliced slick showing the many colors from a teal blue inside to green to brown to black. The skin on this piece is more of a light tan and very narrow. In this case the wind slick has been cut to show the interior beauty of this 2½-lb chunk. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Bull Canyon sliced slick showing the many colors from a teal blue inside to green to brown to black. The skin on this piece is more of a light tan and very narrow. In this case the wind slick has been cut to show the interior beauty of this 2½-lb chunk. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above, a similar but distinct piece of Bull Canyon Wyoming jade that I purchased as jasper at the 1990 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above, a similar but distinct piece of Bull Canyon Wyoming jade that I purchased as jasper at the 1990 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This patterned jade shows the much desired illusive bluish jade in the center. I have seen a 10-lb block of this jade that showed nice translucency, but the price was beyond my disposable income. The piece is 7" long and about 3" high. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

This patterned jade shows the much desired illusive bluish jade in the center. I have seen a 10-lb block of this jade that showed nice translucency, but the price was beyond my disposable income. The piece is 7" long and about 3" high. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

A piece of patterned jade is shown above that displays best in transmitted light. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

A piece of patterned jade is shown above that displays best in transmitted light. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above is one of my favorite Bull Canyon pieces displaying a "bat in flight-at-night." The outside rind hides the interior very well.

Above is one of my favorite Bull Canyon pieces displaying a "bat in flight-at-night." The outside rind hides the interior very well.

I have hundreds of samples of these pattern jades that are each somewhat similar, but very distinct to me.

Above is shown an apple-emerald green slice of what is termed "turtle back" due to the quartz pseudomorphs imbedded in this small slice. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above is shown an apple-emerald green slice of what is termed "turtle back" due to the quartz pseudomorphs imbedded in this small slice. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Finally is displayed an unusual slice of Wyoming brownish nephrite with a dendritic pattern given to me in the 1990s by Al Youngquist.

Finally is displayed an unusual slice of Wyoming brownish nephrite with a dendritic pattern given to me in the 1990s by Al Youngquist.

A darker brownish cut piece of Wyoming jade with dendrites is pictured above.

A darker brownish cut piece of Wyoming jade with dendrites is pictured above.

I conclude this article with several nice carvings recently carved by the large emerging Western jade carvers. One of my favorite pieces is the violin displayed below.

Dale Blankenship carved this apple green Wyoming jade violin from a slice given to him by Pansy Kraus (former Lapidary Journal editor). He was able to carve two violins, one he gave to Pansy and the other he gave to me. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Dale Blankenship carved this apple green Wyoming jade violin from a slice given to him by Pansy Kraus (former Lapidary Journal editor). He was able to carve two violins, one he gave to Pansy and the other he gave to me. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Shown above on a nice olive slick is a full tang Wyoming Edward's black nephrite blade with fiddleback eucalyptus wood. This piece was carved and photographed by Robert Carmen in 2013.

Shown above on a nice olive slick is a full tang Wyoming Edward's black nephrite blade with fiddleback eucalyptus wood. This piece was carved and photographed by Robert Carmen in 2013.

Above is a 3-inch pendant carved by Peter Schilling from Edward's black jade with some of the rind shown. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Above is a 3-inch pendant carved by Peter Schilling from Edward's black jade with some of the rind shown. (Photo: Robert Weldon)

Another Peter Schilling pendant carved out of Wyoming olive jade.

Another Peter Schilling pendant carved out of Wyoming olive jade.

Full tang Wyoming sage with dendritic rind nephrite blade fitted with desert ironwood scales shown about. This knife was also carved and photographed by Robert Carmen.

Full tang Wyoming sage with dendritic rind nephrite blade fitted with desert ironwood scales shown about. This knife was also carved and photographed by Robert Carmen.

One of the most common modern carvings sold at the Big Sur Jade Festival are thin Wyoming jade earrings. Most of these earrings are 1-2 mm thick and 1½" to 3" in length. The light weight makes for comfortable wear and the thin earrings display the patterns and colors nicely in the bright sun. Several of Robert Carmen's are shown below, however many California carvers are producing similar products.

An illustration of good quality Bull Canyon jade is shown above.

An illustration of good quality Bull Canyon jade is shown above.

This picture shows Bob Carmen working on a new pair of Bull Canyon Wyoming jade earrings.

This picture shows Bob Carmen working on a new pair of Bull Canyon Wyoming jade earrings.

The future of Wyoming jade is uncertain since the supply is dwarfed by the massive supplies of great green nephrite deposits in British Columbia and the Yukon, in addition to the deposits in Siberia, but there will always be some pieces from Wyoming found in jade collections world-wide.